Inslee: ‘It’s our state’s destiny … to fight climate change’

In his State-of-the-State address, the governor made the case for an ambitious carbon tax.

Gov Jay Inslee on Tuesday delivered an impassioned plea for lawmakers to enact a tax on carbon pollution that would enable the state to step up its fight against the damaging effects of climate change.

Inslee devoted almost half of his State of the State address to arguing for action against what he described as “an existential threat” to the health of individuals, businesses and the environment.

“While this session is short, our legacy on climate change must be long and lasting,” he said. “We have just 59 days to do our part to save our children from an endless cycle of crop-killing droughts one year and rivers spilling their banks the next. To save salmon from dying in ever warming rivers and our forests from being reduced to plumes of ash.”

In his speech to a joint session of the Legislature, Inslee also called on lawmakers to finish the job on McCleary by using budget reserves to ensure the state is paying its share of basic education by the next school year as demanded by the state Supreme Court.

The court estimated the price tag of full compliance is around $950 million. Inslee has said he would replenish those reserves with money collected in the first two years of the carbon tax.

The governor also urged lawmakers to bolster funding for the state’s mental health system and its efforts to assist the homeless and those battling addiction to opiates.

He pressed for passage of a number of Democrat initiatives including a bill to increase voter participation by allowing registration on Election Day, banning of gun modification devices known as bump stocks and eliminating the death penalty.

And while the governor insisted lawmakers send a capital budget to his desk for signing, he notably made no mention of the ongoing dispute on water policy triggered by the Supreme Court’s Hirst decision. Republican lawmakers have refused to vote on the construction budget until there’s agreement on how certain private wells are permitted.

The lack of mention of Hirst, along with the carbon tax, caught the attention of Republican lawmakers.

“You know going in this governor will always call for new and higher taxes,” said Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. “He never mentions something that affects families in all 39 counties.”

Inslee’s speech came shortly after details of his carbon tax proposal were released.

Under bills introduced Tuesday in the Senate and House, the state would impose a tax of $20 per metric ton of pollution-causing carbon emissions starting July 1, 2019. The tax would rise by 3.5 percent plus inflation each year and there would be no cap.

It would generate an estimated $1.6 billion for the 2019-21 budget, most of which would go into reserves.

Nearly $1.8 billion would be generated in the 2021-23 cycle with half to be spent on efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as programs to expand opportunities for renewable energy at both homes and utilities, and research of clean energy technology. Another 35 percent would go into flood management and stormwater infrastructure, and would also be used to reduce risks of wildfires.

Consumers could feel the effect in many ways. Estimates from the governor’s office are that the carbon tax could drive gasoline prices up 18 cents a gallon and also push up the cost of natural gas and electricity.

A number of environmental organizations issued statements supporting a carbon tax proposal.

Association of Washington Business President Kris Johnson issued one, raising concerns but not outright opposition.

“The end result of the governor’s carbon tax proposal would be higher costs for energy to heat homes, fuel to drive to work and higher prices for natural gas that has helped fuel industries while lowering emissions,” he said. Those added costs would erode the state’s global competitiveness, he said.

He concluded that if a carbon tax is passed, “We believe the funds generated should go toward innovation and clean technology, building on the carbon reduction efforts already showing great success in industries across the state.”

This is the newest attempt by Inslee to get a carbon tax passed. Thus far the concept has failed to gain significant traction in either the House or Senate in his tenure.

A year ago the Democratic governor proposed a tax of $25 per metric ton of carbon emissions starting in 2018 that he estimated could bring in nearly $2 billion a year for education, transportation and clean energy projects.

But the proposal never received a vote in the Democrat-controlled House or Republican-led Senate. Nor did the carbon tax make it into the school funding proposals put forth by House Democrats or Senate Republicans.

Inslee insisted in his speech that the idea of putting a price on carbon is gaining support this year because the effects of climate change on Washington are clearly getting worse. And the rest of the world, as well as neighboring states, are pursuing the approach.

“It is our state’s destiny …to defeat climate change,” he said. “This is the year to believe in ourselves. This is the year to act with confidence. This is the year for us to do our part, for all who will walk in the path we will make, together.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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